Learning the Right Lessons from Your Mistakes

All of us regularly make mistakes in our lives – choices that seem like the right ones at the time, but later turn out to have been poor choices. This is true for all avenues of life: our careers, our personal lives, our finance choices, and anything else where we make decisions and have to live with the consequences.

I’m no exception to this. I can think of countless times, even quite recently, where I made what seemed like a completely appropriate and correct choice, only to discover later that it wasn’t. One example that immediately came to mind was my decision to write about personal hygiene from a factual “here’s what you do” perspective. Instead, as I later discovered, I could have made the same points without seeming condescending by instead describing the reasons why personal hygiene is important.

What follows are some of the steps you can take to not only identify your actual misstep, but to take appropriate lessons from it and apply them to your life.

Be open and willing to realize that you have in fact made a mistake.
The first step towards utilizing a mistake to improve yourself is to realize that you’ve made a mistake at all. Quite often, it’s not clear that you’ve even made a mistake – you might believe that your plan is well crafted and well considered and that a bad result is the result of things outside your control. Or, you might believe that the response of others is completely outside of what’s reasonable.

Whenever you get a poor outcome, the first place to look for blame is yourself. Almost always, there is some aspect of your plan that went awry, some piece that you could have done differently, some preparation you could have made. Even when the blame seems obviously in someone else’s court, there’s still often something you could have done to soften the blow.

Not too long ago, I gave a speech at a convention. I was extremely well prepared for it and the talk itself went fine. What I didn’t expect, however, was the question and answer session afterwards. Instead of absorbing more of the material, I had spent much of my time really nailing the talk – and thus I was eaten alive by the questioners. Immediately afterwards, I was angry at the questioners – where did they come up with this stuff? In the end, though, I saw that the real blame lay with myself – that I had made a mistake in not finding out more about the venue in advance.

Dig down until you can figure out the core of the incorrect choice you made.
Sometimes, you’ll look at a bad outcome and be completely unable to see how it could possibly be your fault. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of laying blame on external sources instead of ourselves – it spares our own feelings and gives us a target to vent at.

It’s especially easy to do this when the mistake you made isn’t obvious at first glance. Give it time. Dig through all of your assumptions and find out which one was wrong. If you didn’t find it the first time, dig through them again. Dig through the ideas that made up your assumptions. Eventually, you will find a mistake that you made.

One of the experiences of my childhood that really shaped how I viewed money and entrepreneurship came when I was about ten years old. I collected aluminum cans for several months, intending to sell them at a great profit, but on the day of the sale, the cans were stolen from me by someone I trusted. It’s very easy to blame the thief here, and it’s something I did for a long time. However, when I dig deep into that experience, I realize that some of the blame is my own – I didn’t secure the cans well at all. It would have been trivial to just lock the door, but I didn’t bother to do it.

Identify the reasons you used to make that incorrect choice.
Once you’ve figured out the incorrect choice you’ve made, it’s easy to say, “Well, I won’t do it that way again!” That’s still the easy path, though.

Why did you make that choice to begin with? What were your reasons for making that choice? It’s quite likely that your mistake was just one piece of a larger pattern, one worth investigating in detail.

When I left that door unlocked, it wasn’t just that I didn’t think to lock a door. It was a sign that I wasn’t careful about my things, that I was lacking in the proper care and respect for the items that were important to me. This was true for a lot of my life – I’d leave important stuff just lying around, not really caring for or respecting it or keeping it safe.

Construct a plan to address those flaws.
Once you’ve figured out the underlying issue, what are you going to do about it? You’ve done the legwork to uncover some aspect of yourself that really needs some work, so you’re going to need a plan to deal with it.

If you’re trying to overcome a bad habit or a psychological block, it might be useful to develop a daily plan for addressing that issue. Is there something you can do or practice every day that will gradually lead you to a different path?

Take, for example, the issue of the slovenly individual discussed recently in the hygiene postings. If a person realizes that people are being driven away by unsanitary behavior, it might actually be worthwhile for that person to actually develop and write out a daily hygiene routine – bathing, washing hair, brushing, flossing, and so on.

What about my own issues with caring for my stuff? I actually started a daily routine of just picking up after myself, putting items back where they should be, and making sure that things are cared for and protected. It’s something that, over time, is becoming very natural to me – I find myself picking things up almost routinely that I would have just not worried about before.

Share that plan with others.
Before you go off implementing this plan you thought up, talk about the whole thing with a few people that are very close to you who are willing to offer honest feedback. It is very easy to radicalize a solution, and that itself can be dangerous.

Move through each step of your logic with someone close to you and ask for their honest input. It may be that you’re barking up the wrong tree entirely with the problem, or it may be that your solution is too weak – or too fierce – to really help with the problem. Listen and take into account what these people tell you.

Whenever I’m figuring out a way to improve myself, the first person I discuss it with is my wife. She’s always willing to offer excellent feedback to me, and our relationship is such that neither one of us pulls punches with commentary. I trust her on a very deep level – she knows me incredibly well and often has better insights into my thoughts than I do.

If you have someone in your life like that, talk to them. Share your mistakes and work with that person to make sure that you don’t make another mistake via your solution.

The first step, though, is up to you. Are you ready to take it?

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